How the “Love Hormone” May Contribute to Racism

January 14, 2011  |  

(TIME)–In his memorial speech for the victims of the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords yesterday, President Obama urged Americans to use the tragedy to “sharpen our instincts for empathy.” But is human capacity for compassion—which seems to be driven at least in part by the so-called “love hormone” oxytocin—limited to caring for members of one’s own race or ethnic group? New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that oxytocin does increase preferences for people of one’s own ethnicity while simultaneously, but to a lesser extent, increasing prejudice against outsiders. Most coverage of the study has focused on its implications about the limitations of the “love hormone.” But what the media has largely missed is how flexible human perceptions of “insiders” and “outsiders are and how ethnicity is not always the determinant of who we see as “us” and who we see as “them.”

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